Nov

08

2011

Justin Taylor|3:00 pm CT

The Pleasure of Fear (Or, Why We Like to Be Scared at the Movies)

Grant Horner:

If there is a God, one whom we naturally (and rightly) should fear; and if we have suppressed this truth, as Romans 1 says we have; and if, as I am arguing in this book, powerful truths such as these cannot and do not remain suppressed, then perhaps we now have a way of understanding the business and art of fear for pleasure. If God (and fear of him) has been removed from the forefront of our conscious minds, yet we are “built to fear” something infinitely greater than ourselves, something awesome, terrifying, mysterious, and incomprehensible, then we find ourselves predisposed to replace fear of him with fear of something.

The full-blown abject terror of an infinite God—unmediated by grace—would be overwhelming and impossible to bear. And try as we might, we cannot entirely vanquish our sense of God or our creeping fears regarding him. The fear is inescapable. It is also unbearable. The only thing we can do is develop techniques to cope with the fear, just like a mountain climber or a skydiver does. The fear has to be managed—it has to be controlled. Uncontrolled fear is crippling. I believe that one way this management can be undertaken (and it can be done very effectively) is through storytelling. Fiction is a management tool through which suppressed truths slowly reemerge in bits and pieces, chunks and tatters, despite our attempts to bury the way the world really is. Narrative in general, and the very powerful, reality-replacing narrative art of film, can present to us an entirely convincing object of fear that has nevertheless been controlled, tamed, and reduced to a manageable package. One moment we are petrified in the dark theater—the next we are walking to the coffee shop laughing with our friends. Not so with deity. . . .

For a believer, fearing God is a sublime, deep pleasure. That is what the ultimate fear is—pleasurable. It is not supposed to be negative, uncomfortable, or debilitating, but rather edifying by showing us who and what we are in terms of an almighty and infinite being. The fear of God, ironically, is not fearful for a Christian. Because we are wired to gain pleasure from the fear of God, yet as a race we do not so fear him, we find ourselves in the rather perverse position of experiencing certain pleasures coming to us in the form of highly manufactured and densely controlled fears packaged as entertainment. I believe this is why “fear for pleasure” has become such a profitable sector of the film industry. We want to have something to fear, and yet we want to maintain control over that fear, to limit that fear within prescribed boundaries, which we can never do in the case of the “fear of the Lord.” Fearing God cannot be bounded, yet we can trust his care and love for us, his promise that he will not harm us. The precise opposite is the case in horror films: the evil entity wants to harm us—but we can control it, because we know it isn’t real.

—Grant Horner, Meaning at the Movies (Crossway, 201), pp. 130, 131-132.

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